Opening a space for faiths to disagree and to work together

This Sunday, I’ll be attending a post-wedding meal for a Hindu couple, hosted by mutual friends in Golders Green, in the company of Jewish, Christian and Muslim guests.

No prizes for guessing that the Jewish tradition of post-wedding sheva brachot meals has been borrowed (without the sheva brachot themselves of course) to allow us all to celebrate the wedding of dear friends who got married in India earlier this month.

Why are we all friends?

Because we have all chosen to get actively involved in interfaith work in the UK.

However, if you are picturing rabbis, vicars and imams sipping tea and bemoaning the lack of parking spaces outside their respective places of worship, you are very far off the mark.

The best examples of interfaith encounters I’ve come across allow people to explore and celebrate shared identities, but also create a space to discuss differences in a more constructive manner.

When an interfaith encounter leads to a friendship, the growth in trust allows people to disagree better.

Two individuals can hold theological views which are fundamentally different to, or even hostile towards, each other but at an operational level there is much they can gain from working together.

Classic examples of faith communities working together include the defence of faith-based circumcision and religious slaughter but in a society with an increasingly secularist agenda can now include collaboration on best practice for integrated curricula for faith schools, or representation to universities on issues such as co-ed halls of residence, exam clashes with festivals, availability of prayer space etc.

However, working at HOPE not hate, I see a more fundamental place for interfaith work, which proves vital in drawing people together when a crisis hits.

When serving British soldier Lee Rigby was murdered outside Woolwich Barracks in 2013 by two men claiming supposed retaliation for British military involvement in Muslim countries, the government had few Muslim organisations with whom they had ongoing relationships.

Faith leaders at Woolwich, following the murder of Lee Rigby
Faith leaders at Woolwich, following the murder of Lee Rigby

It was the existing interfaith connections which allowed Muslim organisations to very quickly speak out against the attack, and to stand together with leaders of many faith organisations, all committed to showing solidarity at a time of great community stress.

With the EDL clashing with the police on the streets in Woolwich, and organising demonstrations up and down the UK, it was the interfaith work of community leaders which captured the press attention and turned the mood of the country.

While these kind of responses from faith leaders are crucial, it would be a huge mistake to think that interfaith encounters should be limited to clergy and community leaders alone.

When initiatives extend beyond the clergy to their congregants, the potential for creating an increased sense of positivity and understanding between those of all faith and of none is huge.

HOPE not hate’s national More In Common campaign was launched this summer in response to the murder of Jo Cox and to the negativity surrounding some of the EU Referendum campaigning.

In hundreds of events around the country, ranging from small groups meeting up to share a cup of tea through to city-wide food festivals and fun days, the More In Common campaign addresses a national feeling that people want to connect across community boundaries.

We are beyond the point when interfaith just meant opening the doors to the local church, mosque or synagogue for an Open Day. Nowadays, interfaith provides opportunities for organic local connections to be made which can only strengthen our communities.

About the Author
Jemma Levene is Deputy Director at HOPE not hate, an organisation which uses research, education and public engagement to challenge racism. Previously, she worked as Head of Campaigns at Jewish charity SEED, and at the Orthodox Union in New York. She holds an MA (Hons) in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh.
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